Talking about the elephant in the room: Mental health and learning how to share your story

There were nine of us sitting there around a big table, nervously shuffling papers and preparing to share our own stories of mental ill-health. Where were we? What were we doing? Why were we drawing on all our courage to tell others vulnerable details of our own experiences and journeys?

Well, we were at a BATYR ‘Being Herd’ workshop.
And we were prepared.

We were there because each one of us wanted to learn how to tell our story – to tell our story in a structured way that connected with others without emotionally swamping them. We had the reassuring presence of Sam & Tom, our workshop facilitators and Amy – our support person.

“Who’s ready to share next? You have 10 minutes and we’re all ready to listen.”

I took a deep breath in and out, then raised my hand. I looked at my notes, and started to speak…

From the Batyr workshop we learnt practical elements of storying telling around mental health. Things like,

  1. Begin with you – what you’re like and what you enjoy.
    Add a little background context – your family, your up-bringing.
  2. What you experienced: how did it begin? What did you notice first? What did others notice (or not notice about you?). Was it an ongoing issue? Describe how it felt – moments in time. Be careful not to generalise, use “I” and “for me”. Everyone experiences everything differently. No one experience is more “real” or more “valid”. (Depending on who you’re talking to – leave out specific methods of any kind of harm and focus instead on the feelings.)
  3. Turning points & support – there may have been one or there may have been many. How did you know you needed to reach out for support? What support did you seek out? What has worked and what hasn’t worked for you? (This is where you can go into detail).
  4. Where are you now in your journey? What is the key message you want to share with others who may be struggling? What do you do today to manage your wellbeing? (For example, being in nature)

What about for those of us who think a friend or someone we know might being going through a tough time?

You might be reluctant to ask them how they are – but I have to say that from my own personal experience, feeling like no-one could see or would acknowledge the fact that I was seriously struggling and needed help was the hardest part for me.

It can start with a simple question, “R U OK?”

But honestly I think the best start to this conversation is saying that you’ve noticed something about the person. E.g. “I’ve noticed that you seem a lot quieter lately – Are you okay?” or, “I’ve noticed that you’re not doing ____(that thing you’ve always loved doing)___ – Are you okay?” To me it seems that that extra bit of attention and concern from someone makes it much harder to brush it off with a “Yeah, I’m fine”.

You can also let the person know that you’re willing to listen to them if they ever want to talk. Often people don’t want advice, just someone to hear and acknowledge them.

And of course, you can let someone know that there are many different support options out there, for example:

  • BeyondBlue: 24/7 free phone line support for depression and anxiety 1300 22 4636
  • Lifeline Australia: 24/7 free phone crisis support 13 11 14
  • Butterfly Foundation: Confidential online and phone support for anyone with a question about eating disorders or negative body image, including sufferers, carers, family and friends. 1800 33 4673
  • Headspace Adelaide: In-person help, professional services for people aged 12-25 and their families. 1800 063 267 Address: 173 Wakefield Street, Adelaide, SA.
  • Centacare: In-person mental health and counselling services including suicide intervention. (08) 8215 6700 Address: 45 Wakefield Street, Adelaide, SA.
  • If you’re a UniSA student there’s the UniSA Counselling Services: In-person, free and confidential counselling to all students. 1300 301 703

What the workshop meant to me

The Being Herd workshop was a seriously amazing experience. Hearing all those stories about the incredible diversity of what people had been through and how they have found support in so many different ways and places, was such an eye-opener.

Everyone has some story about mental health. If you don’t have your own story, then I bet you $500 right now that you know someone close to you who has.

The workshop ended with us standing in a circle looking at a bunch of laminated cards with different values and strengths written on them. Things like, bravery, willpower, humour, honesty, persistence… We had to select two cards to give to the person next to us. Two cards which embodied that person and their story. I was given “love of learning” and “gratitude” (hence the featured image), and I am so grateful and so touched every time I look at those cards now. They’re stuck to my wall and they are never coming down!

Thank you Batyr. Thank you to Sam, Tom and Amy. And most of all, thank you to those other 8 amazing people who let me know their stories and accepted mine in return.

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